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Death Penalty Supporters Fight Repeal Bill

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By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Death penalty supporters urged Connecticut voters to call their state legislators and demand they oppose a bill moving through the General Assembly that would repeal the state’s capital punishment law.

The proposal is expected to clear the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which has until Friday to vote on the bill.

Opponents said they hope to strip the repeal language and amend the legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives with changes they believe would make the existing death penalty law more “workable,” reducing the length of time between a killer’s sentencing and execution to seven to 10 years.

Currently, people can spend decades on Connecticut’s death row awaiting the results of various appeals.

“The people of Connecticut want legislators to fix the system, not throw it out. The people want a more workable death penalty,” said Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold. A March 10 Quinnipiac University Poll found 67 percent of registered voters favor the death penalty, a new high for the state. An October survey found 65 percent supported the law.

Yet Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, a leading proponent of the repeal bill, pointed out how the same poll showed that support for the death penalty drops when people are asked to choose between death and life in prison without chance of parole. Forty-eight percent said they backed capital punishment, while 43 percent said they supported life in prison with no parole.

The telephone survey of 1,693 registered voters had a 2.4 percentage point margin of error.

“They’re not citing the right part of the poll,” said Holder-Winfield, whose legislation would replace the death penalty with life in prison with no chance of parole for certain murders. The bill would be prospective and not apply to the 10 men currently on death row. However, there are differing opinions as to whether those men could use the law change as part of an appeal, claiming it’s an arbitrary classification.

Details of the proposed amendment are still being drafted. Rep. David Labriola, R-Naugatuck, said the lawmakers have been working with the chief state’s attorney’s office on the language and believe it would be considered constitutional.

He said it would provide new time limits for filing habeas corpus petitions and automatic stays of execution.

The death penalty supporters said they believe the state’s murder rate will decline if the process is streamlined.
Holder-Winfield said he’s heard the argument about how other states have been able to shorten the time between a person’s sentencing and their execution. But he’s skeptical of that working in Connecticut.

“In some of those states, they’ve executed innocent people,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the fix.”

Both Holder-Winfield and Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said don’t believe the death penalty process can be “fixed,” as the proponents are promising. They pointed to past efforts dating to 1995, when lawmakers attempted to hasten the process for executing a death row inmate.

“Here we are, over 15 years later, a never-ending appeals process,” Jones said. “It’s the same-old, same-old. This is a problem that you can’t solve and that’s why these reform efforts keep failing and I think for good reason.”

Besides the state lawmakers, police and family members of murder victims, including Dr. William Petit _ whose wife and two daughters were killed in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire, turned out for Monday’s news conference at the Legislative Office Building. They were the latest group to speak out about the repeal bill. Last week, more than 300 Christian and Jewish leaders gave legislators a letter supporting the legislation.

Also on Monday, two dozen current and former law enforcement officials from Connecticut signed a letter to state lawmakers, urging them to support the repeal bill. The group claims there is no evidence that the death penalty deters potential murderers from committing crimes.

Supporters of the repeal are hopeful of its final passage because Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, has said he’d sign the bill, which would apply to future convictions. In 2009, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, vetoed a similar bill, saying she believed the death penalty was appropriate for particularly heinous crimes, such as the Cheshire home invasion.

The Judiciary Committee has meetings scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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